IATEFL Opening Plenary – David Crystal

David Crystal officially opens IATEFL Liverpool by first warning us not to trust Wikipedia, which has knighted him for a few days and stated that he has had different numbers of children and wives. He moves on to tell us about he went to school in Liverpool and proudly tells us to listen out to the Liverpudlian influences in his accent.

Introducing us to some popular songs and then focusing our attention on a well-known song by Paul McCartney and Wings, ‘Live and Let Die’, and the much-discussed lyrics ‘But if this ever changing world in which we live in’.

The tune needs two prepositions for it to work and when music calls, grammar blends.

Lexical blends like ‘brunch‘ become part of our everyday language quickly but syntactic blends do not get into our language as easily.

It is however important to note that blends are very common in speech

Here are some examples:

I don’t know to which hotel I’m going to.

For which party will you be voting for in the March 9th Election?

Mentors are for business people, mentors can help you and be your role models, couples to which we look up to.

From which country does a Lexus come from?

Syntactic blends arise when people are unsure of which to use and so they use both.

It raises because of the clash and choice that could come from formal and informal usage.

In the prescriptive tradition that dominated schools, teachers tend to try and eliminate the informal forms and therefore enforcing rules such as ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’. Yet, Shakespeare uses end-place prepositions all the time. But the rule appealed to classically-inclined pedants. Winston Churchill even had rules ‘up with which he would not put‘.

So those who try to follow the rules taught to us and place the preposition at the beginning… but the natural pattern of the language takes over and the preposition is put after the verb where it feels most natural, forgetting that they’ve used a preposition already.

The further away the two prepositions, the more likely this is to happen.

e.g. For which of the five candidates in the forthcoming by-election will the people of Eastleigh be voting for?

But double prepositions aren’t the only Syntactic Blend that happens.

Here, Professor Crystal introduces another Beatles song with the lyrics

He won’t do nothing right just in sitting down and look so good‘ (as opposed to ‘looking so good’)

and

I been told when a boy kiss a girl‘ (as opposed to ‘a boy kisses a girl’)

When we leave music behind and listen to spoken English, such blends all the time.

We start sentences, change our minds and end sentences differently from how we intended when we started.

We usually do not notice this though, as we are paying attention to what is being said rather than how it is being said.

Prof. Crystal uses his own lectures as examples of the non-grammatical statements in spoken English:

Within how long did it take for an American English start to grow?

which is a blend of ‘Within what period of time did it take for an American English to start to grow?

and

How long did it take for an American English to start to grow?

Here’s an example embedded in a dialogue:

‘Well, we don’t speak it?’

‘Why don’t we speak it?’

‘Well, cos I was never taught it.’

‘Well, why weren’t I taught it?’

As a result of the constant use of the pronoun ‘we’ at the beginning, the last statement is a blend of ‘Well why weren’t we/you taught it?’ and ‘Why wasn’t I taught it?

These blends of course appear a lot less in written material due to gatekeeping by editors and publishers. Thus, a lot of what is considered ‘standard English’ corresponds to what is published. Yet, with the advent of the internet, these gatekeepers might not be there and most people do not revise and re-read what they write in emails and blogs (especially if they’re blogging simultaneously during a conference plenary).

Here, Prof David Crystal uses examples from the most popular blogs in the UK with blended constructions.

Comprehension is governed by the distribution of weight in a sentence. English is governed by end weight, and speakers tend to put the  most important information at the end, after the main verb, rather than in the beginning. Most sentences use a single pronoun and verb followed by a concentration of content after the verb. One can of course use long adverbials at the beginning of the sentence, but this makes comprehension more difficult and the sentence is more difficult to process…therefore naturally, in spoken English, this does not happen as often.

Note these two sentences:

It was nice of John and Mary to visit us the other day.

versus

For John and Mary to visit us the other day was nice.

We tend to get irritated with the second sentence, thinking ‘Where’s the verb? Get on with it!”

Here, Prof. Crystal uses a random ELT coursebook to make a point.

In a chapter on relative clauses, long noun phrases are featured:

e.g. Salesman who sell books at your door are a  nuisance. The books they sell are often expensive’

A lot of information needs to be processed before getting to the verb, while trying to learn a new piece of English grammar.

This could make it more difficult for students and perhaps coursebooks should use relative clauses with shorter subjects when introducing the grammar point, and leave such long noun phrases for more advanced levels.

e.g I don’t like salesmen who sells books at the door.

It’s often expensive to buy the books they sell.

In ELT, we come across blends often in students’ writing.

e.g. ‘Does it not worry you that the man to whom you will marry might be cruel to you?

It is important to realise that errors such as these blends are signs of growth and not be condemned.

Teachers should try to understand the origin and source of the blend. To condemn them as mistakes would result in students not daring to try out new constructions in the future.

Blends tend to occur more often when the speaker/writer is under pressure and has to complete the sentence quickly, and the grammar finds it harder to keep pace with the thought  e.g. football commentaries, family rows, etc.

Blends are nothing to feel guilty. In writing, we try to eliminate them for being labelled as careless and sloppy by readers who have more time to examine our sentences.

Here, Prof. Crystal clarifies that he is not advocating that we teach blends, but more that we not condemn blends in speech when we are likely to use them ourselves.

Ending his plenary with a piece of titbit about his days as a saxophone player, he muses that Paul MacCartney may have earned much more than him, Paul MacCartney never quite had the honour of ending up as the patron of IATEFL.

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Author: chiasuanchong

I am a freelance communications trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. With 13 years of experience training students from all over the world to communicate better in English (and in particular, Business English), I am also a professional blogger, materials writer and intercultural trainer.

11 thoughts on “IATEFL Opening Plenary – David Crystal”

  1. It was a very interesting talk, thanks for the summary Chia – have a good week. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. Thank you Chia, from Korea, where the feed was quite choppy…(btw — please slip David Crystal a note that “Live and Let Die” is post-Beatles = Paul McCartney & Wings 😉 )

  3. Chia, well done for such a swift and coherent summary of the talk. Not only impressive, but useful and enjoyable for those of us who can’t be with you all.

      1. But I must add that you’ve managed to get an amazing amount in! Well done! And just to say that the full version of the paper will be up on my website in a few days time.

        1. Thanks very much for your lovely comments, David.
          Just a note to say that I’ve corrected the mistake in the blogpost to ‘Paul McCartney and Wings’.
          And it was lovely having the chance to chat to you and have a little banter about English as a Lingua Franca and Singlish at the GI SIG event on Monday. : ) Looking forward to the next time we meet again! Meanwhile, I’ll look out for the full version of the paper on your website in a few days’ time.

          Yours,
          Chia

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